You talk fondly of your time in England and this summer there was an opportunity to return. Were you tempted to go to Manchester United or would you only go back to play for Arsenal? I don't know. But I never planned to go back this summer. It's not something I was even thinking about. I was always clear in my mind that I want to succeed at Barcelona and I'd give everything to triumph here. I said openly: I haven't even thought about leaving, I'm not going. I heard about it when I was in Ibiza with friends. A friend read it in the paper and told me, then I read it …
Did you call the club and say: "Hey, what's going on?" No, no, no. When I heard, I contacted Darren [Dein, my agent] and he confirmed that it had come out officially. He said: "Yes, it's true." He said: "What do you want to do?" I didn't know anything about it [until then]. If a club comes in for you and you tell your representative that you want to go, then you go. I spoke to [Josep Maria] Bartomeu, the vice-president, and he told me: "You're not going anywhere; we have complete confidence in you." Then I spoke to the president. I was very relaxed about the whole thing because that's what they transmitted to me. It's true that they had offers, and they told me that, but the only thing in my head was staying at Barcelona.
How do you explain the fact that United seemed so convinced? That conviction must have come from somewhere. At no time did I say that I wanted to go and I stayed out of it. I was surprised. I didn't encourage them at all.
Has your decision to stay been vindicated? Only Gerard Piqué has started more league games and you've had an impressive start, playing probably your best football since returning in 2011. The season's started brilliantly. This coach [Tata Martino] lets me play the way that suits my qualities and I'm very comfortable, very happy. I'm feel better all the time, more and more central. The coach is giving me more opportunities, more status, more leadership. On the first day – well, not the first day, but maybe the third or fourth, early on – he called me over and told me: "I want you to be the player you were at Arsenal." And I thought: "Wow!", because I'd always felt so good at Arsenal, so important. I'm not the No10 exactly because things aren't so clearly defined positionally as they with Pep [Guardiola] and Tito [Vilanova], who were very focused on that. When we attack, Tata likes things to be a little more anarchic – just a little – which means that with the ball you can move away from a set position without any problems.
Do you feel liberated? Because I didn't want to affect the system last season, I would sometimes think: "Hostia [bloody hell], if I move from here, we lose the ball and I leave someone free, I'll get a rollicking." Now I have the assurance that the manager wants me to make those runs. What could be a problem isn't. But it's also down to continuity ...
There was an assumption in England that you'd return because you weren't playing, even though you made more league appearances than anyone else last season. But it is true that you shifted position a lot and when the big games came, you weren't always included ... If you play one game and then the next, and the next, and the next, but then comes the game away to Bayern Munich and you're losing 4-0 and you're sitting on the bench, then you can't help but let it get to you. You think: "Hostia, I'm not even warming up and they're beating us 4-0." That has an impact. It surprises you, it affects you mentally, because you feel good and then suddenly: bang! If you're winning, providing assists, playing well, scoring, everything happens naturally. If you feel truly important and then you miss the occasional game, if you're rotated, you take it differently. But if it's like that, the big games, it's harder. It's more mental than anything else.
Did you feel that you needed greater support, more trust? I know what I can do but you need others too. You think: "The coach trusts me, he believes in me, I'm playing, I'm important." And that makes a real difference. Even more so here because you know Xavi is very important and Andrés [Iniesta] is very important, and [Lionel] Messi, and you can end up thinking: "Maybe I'm not at that level.' I can't spend my life saying "Well, it's Xavi and Iniesta; no problem" because that becomes an excuse for not being ambitious. But sometimes that can happen. I want to show that I'm at that level; the difference this year is that I'm able to. If everything continues like this, through this season and into next, I'll feel increasingly important.
The fundamental problem remains though, doesn't it? The men you have to compete with for your three most natural positions are Xavi, Iniesta and Messi … that's some competition. Yes, but it's the continuity that helped make Xavi the player he is and Iniesta the player he is; that helped make them so good. The same goes for Messi. I've sometimes fallen somewhere between the three. But what I like about Tata is that the player in the best form plays. I try to be at my best so I can play. That's what we all want and I've been able to show that. That's what the manager wants: when he has seen a player who's tired, he doesn't care [who it is, he changes them anyway] …
You're still getting moved about a bit, though. Do you have a preference when it comes to position or are you happy just to play? Hombre, ahora si. [Right now, yes.] I want to play. But in the long run every player wants a regular place, to be able to say: "This is my position."
And what position is that? I enjoy all three positions, which is lucky. Imagine, for example, if I could only play on the left of the front three, I have an obstacle there [Neymar] that's ... wow! I started as a holding midfielder in a 3-4-3 with Piqué and Messi in the under-13s, at the base of the midfield diamond – Guardiola's position – and I've moved forward as time's gone on.
Sergio Busquets' position, you mean? Yes, exactly, Busi. At Arsenal, I played in the two in front of the defence, then sometimes [Arsène] Wenger would play me wide right because there's less pressure there, more freedom. Then in my last two or three years at Arsenal, as mediapunta behind the striker. Now I sometimes even play as the striker or on the left ... I could end up back at No4 but I think physically I have a good few years playing further forward, hahaha! But, yeah, why not? Plenty of creative players have headed backwards later in their careers.
At Arsenal you took on a huge amount of responsibility very young: they made you captain and gave you Patrick Vieira's shirt, and you grew into it. Will that happen at Barcelona now? As the captain, someone who'd been there for a long time, at Arsenal I felt like I had to motivate the players and drive the team. I had that responsibility. But I've only been here two years and I still feel on the margins, a little removed from that, because there are other players who have that role.
I don't hold back if I have to make my presence felt, that's in my nature, but I do feel a change from Arsenal, where I felt like people looked to me. You take a step forward and the team takes a step forward. I enjoyed that responsibility but at Barcelona it hasn't happened. It's not something you look for, it finds you. It'll happen naturally like it did at Arsenal. Suddenly you find yourself in a situation where you feel that responsibility, you sense it. At Barça, there's Xavi and [Víctor] Valdés, [Carles] Puyol and Messi, who have that role. The rest of us push from behind.
Your return to Barcelona hasn't been easy. This is a different environment ... It's difficult to explain but at a club like Barcelona or Real Madrid, there's so much pressure that it's not always good for young players. When everything's going well this is the best club in the world but when things go badly you hardly leave the house, whereas in London if you lose the fans still sing your name. In England you have that extra mental freedom: you know that if you misplace a pass the fans will support you, they're always on your side. The media spotlight is greater in Spain too, the pressure. Developing as a player at Arsenal was good for me.
And now that you're back? My case was different because the supporters saw me as someone who'd been here as a kid, who'd left and who the club had to pay a lot of money for. Without that, I would have been viewed differently. I had the added responsibility, demands, and there were difficult moments. But overall, and especially now, people [at Barcelona] have been brilliant.
Is Barcelona really so different? When you go back, you realise what Barça really is. It's not just about winning trophies, it's a model. Recently, we played against Rayo Vallecano. We won 4-0 and people weren't happy because they had slightly more possession than us. And, suddenly, a debate arises from nothing. It's incredible: it was one game in five years, the first time we'd had under 50% of the ball, and we won 4-0! It wasn't as if we won 1-0. But that's why this club is so special. No one plays quite like Barça. In England there's a lack of control but people don't want it any other way. You watch a game where the passes are being pinged about – pam, pam, pum – and you think: "Hostia, they're playing well," but the crowd want something else. Someone plays a pass backwards and the fans roar them forward: you have to attack, attack, attack. Sometimes at the Camp Nou it's the opposite – you drive forward and the pressure is to be patient. You can pass the ball around for a minute or so and the crowd enjoy it. They want it.
Barcelona won the 2012-13 league title but the season was greeted as a disappointment. The 7-0 aggregate defeat against Bayern Munich weighed heavily and so did the illness to Tito Vilanova, who you've known since you were 12 or 13. It was so important to win the league and dedicate it to Tito and [Eric] Abidal. What I'd say [to the critics] is that if you have the kind of season we had at any other club it would go down as a brilliant season. You win the league with 100 points, 15 points clear of Real Madrid, which are records. You lose in the cup against Madrid, something that can happen – it's Madrid! And you reach the Champions League semi-final with Xavi not fit, Messi not fit, with Tito back but having been away for three or four months with illness. We weren't right physically. And you lose. That's still a good season. At any other club it would be a very good season, especially with what happened to Tito ...
That must have had an effect on the team ... A profound effect. You arrive at training one morning and they tell you, and for days it's all you can think about. You ask: Why? Why always here? It's horrible, very, very hard. But as a team we overcame … we overcame … we overcame … and then Bayern come out, like motorbikes, and they're a very, very good team. It was their time to win the tournament: they'd reached three semis and lost two finals. They had a right to win it, bloody hell. You can't always win but that shows the demands at Barcelona.
Do we forget the human element, the pressure? Some people have the brains to understand, to appreciate that Bayern are a good team, that we got 100 points, that you can't always win … Others are more fanatical and only complain, complaint after complaint, always going on. And there are a lot of them, eh! But, look, you need that level of expectation to ensure the club keeps growing. I'm glad we have that. It can't be criticism for criticism's sake, though.
Speaking of Bayern, are they favourites again? I saw them against City and that was the best they've played. You're curious to see how they'll play because of Pep. He hadn't changed much at first and what he changed didn't turn out well in the German Super Cup. He went back to playing with a fixed centre-forward, like last year, but against City I saw changes again with the false nine, pressing high, [Philipp] Lahm in midfield …
So is it a Pep team now? Against City yes. Si, si, si, si. The movements they were making were the same ones he asked us to make, the pressing. It was a great game to watch as a spectator.
This weekend is the clásico. How do you think Gareth Bale will do in Spain? Will the lack of space you've described be a problem for him? That's the question, one of the things he'll most have to get used to. A lot depends on how Madrid want to play. If Madrid want the ball, he'll find it more difficult because he won't have the space in front of him; the opposition will close up defensively and sit deep. But if they're not going to have so much possession and they break well, as they did with [José] Mourinho, it'll suit him. Over the last few years, Madrid's opponents have thought: "We've got the ball," they grow in confidence, they move up the pitch and, bang, a counterattack and it's a goal. Bale will enjoy that.
That suggests that, stylistically, the best opponents for Madrid are … Barcelona. You make it "easier" for them. Yes. Recently, Madrid haven't liked opponents ceding them possession and waiting. Cristiano [Ronaldo] finds himself with two lines of four in front of him; Bale would too. [Karim] Benzema's alone. What they like is teams like Rayo; what they like is for the opposition to come forward with the ball and then lose it. In two passes, Madrid are at the other end. They have such powerful players going forward. In the last few clásicos they've done that very well against us, to their great credit. They've won possession, been aggressive and made life difficult for us, mostly on the counterattack.
The bottom line is that you want to win so there's an obvious conclusion: Barcelona should change style, shouldn't they? At least against Madrid.
It would be an option but Barça have to play like Barça. If we lose we have to lose playing like Barça and when we win we win like Barça. That's something I've learnt since returning. At Barça no one likes to lose. If you play well and lose or you play badly and lose, either way you've lost. But here people do appreciate that we do things a certain way, our way. Now we have another coach and sometimes he has other ideas, so let's see. But, in theory, we'll be the same Barcelona we always are.